Scores of immigrants suddenly surged forward in a pushing, shoving frenzy at the Merrifield Post Office last night, flinging blizzards of envelopes toward collection bins in the hope of submitting a winning entry in the State Department's green card lottery.
"I come from Northern Ireland and I've been shot at and bombed, and I've never been as scared as that," said Tom Mellon, 25, one of nearly 3,000 immigrants who were in line at the post office last night.
The first-come, first-served lottery, with no limit on the number of applications an immigrant may submit, is being used to give away 40,000 green cards, which permit legal residence in this country.
Based on the post office's collection schedule at Merrifield, which the federal government designated to sort the applications, many immigrants concluded that 7 p.m. was the best time to mail applications, and that the facility in the 8400 block of Lee Highway in Fairfax County was the best place.
Although Postal Service officials said they tried to counter that theory, they couldn't prevent a sudden stampede toward the collection bins last night that left many shaken participants recalling European soccer riots. Applications tossed from the rear of the line -- some in bags and even suitcases -- filled the air and littered the ground.
No serious injuries were reported in what witnesses and participants described as 15 minutes of flailing arms and legs. At least one man was pushed into a bin rapidly filling with letters, amid shouts and screams of "get back, get back."
"I got crushed," said Ed Kleefield, 25, of New York, who was there to mail the applications of a friend living in France. "I was terrified."
"At one point," said Chris Purcell, 40, of Louisville, "I thought, this is it."
Postal officials said that about 16 Postal Service police and five or six postal inspectors were on duty, but "we could have had 500 officers and it wouldn't have made any difference," said Robert Thomas, security officer in charge for the Postal Inspection Service.
Postal officials also said that the majority of those waiting for 7 p.m. were orderly and that only a small group was involved in the stampede.
Earlier, immigrants, wearing jeans and T-shirts as well as Burberry scarves and carrying Louis Vuitton handbags, roamed the post office's grassy entrance, carrying shopping bags, boxes and suitcases full of applications for the lottery, which offers a rare shot at becoming legal U.S. residents.
"There are many, many people of different cultures milling about," said Henry Cleffi, a Merrifield spokesman, looking across the post office parking lot that had become an ethnic festival. "They're all getting along as far as I can see."
The lottery is the first of three similar handouts of green cards held each year.
Only people from 35 mostly European countries and territories that have had little immigration to the United States in the past 25 years are eligible for the lottery. Under a provision of the 1990 Immigration Act, 40 percent of the prized cards must go to Irish applicants.
The State Department is accepting the first 40,000 applications that arrive at its special post office box after 12:01 a.m. tomorrow.
Officials had said they expected a total of as many as 75,000 people to come to the Merrifield station during the weekend.
Officials said applications would be discarded if they arrive at the special post office box before 12:01 a.m. tomorrow.
Postal officials said that by depositing letters in the Merrifield hampers after 7 p.m. last night, immigrants could be sure their applications would not arrive too early. However, they said they had tried to advise applicants that mailing at a variety of other times and places would offer an equal chance of success in the lottery, and that 7 p.m. was not a "magic hour."
Already, 1 million letters have been delivered to the State Department's box, Cleffi said, and he expects about 2 million more before the official starting time. Those 3 million applications will not be counted because they arrived too early, he said.
By midafternoon yesterday, the large hampers placed in front of the Merrifield facility were quickly filled with envelopes.
People who had brought hundreds and thousands of applications would mail only a few every hour, in a strategy they hoped would improve their chances of having an application arrive at the proper time.
Marta Kiss, who arrived from Hungary two years ago to study English in high school near Syracuse, N.Y., expects to graduate from a business school in New York state in December. She said she hopes to stay in this country after that because she will have a better life here.
"I have all my friends here, everyone I know," Kiss said.
She said she heard rumors that the best time to mail applications at Merrifield was after 7 p.m., so she decided to wait in the post office parking lot five or six hours until then. "I met so many people from Hungary here," Kiss said. "We just swap our stories and have a good time."
Susan Farkas also is from Hungary, where she and her husband were physicians, she said. She said that her husband arrived here nearly four years ago to do medical research, and that since then their income has plummeted; neither can practice medicine because they don't have green cards, and they are living frugally in a rented apartment in Detroit.
Karim Ait Abdellah sat with friends under a tree on a grassy knoll, where he had spread out application envelopes to form the words "New York Algeria."
"We are from Algeria originally, but we live in New York," Abdellah said. "It's better we stay here. We not go back" to Algeria. "There is no democracy.
"So, I come here, maybe we'll have a chance," Abdellah said of Merrifield. Two of Abdellah's brothers are in law school in this country. He hopes that when they graduate, they can open a business devoted somehow to Algerians. If he doesn't win a green card this year, he said he will try again, for what he said is a simple reason: "America, I swear to God, it's the best."